Prayer is Paying Attention

Prayer is Paying Attention

‘Earth’s Cry, Heaven’s Smile’, Carlos Santana, Europa

Prayer is paying attention.  Prayer is that transforming gasp of wonder when, in an instant of discovery, you see something, hear something, feel something.  For that instant you know with certainty that paying attention is prayer.

I should have listened carefully to the street prophets.  More than 20 years ago, David Marsh stepped into my religious world to tell me this.  He knew from street experience that ‘the dance of God has sanctified the ceremonies of the streets’.  Prayer is paying attention to the rhythms of the world around us.

Prayer is that transforming gasp of wonder* when, in an instant of discovery, you see something, hear something, feel something.  For that instant you know with certainty that paying attention is prayer.

Those who mentored my 20-year-old Evangelical conversion taught prayer as a long[ing] for God and conformity to His will, in inward purity and holiness’.  In prayer I must ‘wrestle earnestly for others, for the kingdom of Christ in the world, and for dear Christian friends … [I must feel] weaned from the world, and from my own reputation …’

I tried hard, but prayer with this urgency was always elusive.   And it seemed so world-denying and self-affirming.  I wondered where prayer and justice met (Psalm 85:10-11).   I do not doubt that there are some who can live authentically with this praying but today I claim release.  Prayer had become like ‘shooting shafts into the dark … reaching for a hand you cannot touch.’

Prayer is Paying Attention

International Grammar School Orchestra

Prayer, as I have come to experience it, is paying attention to movement and colour.  It catches the smell of the world.  It touches and is touched in caress and wholehearted engagement.  To pray is to be absorbed in the moment.   Simone Weil anticipated this in a profound insight: ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.  Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

Attention enlarges mind and spirit.  Through sensation you grasp the depth of beauty, and sometimes the depth of ugliness, of our environment.  The prayer centre-point reaches beyond the self to see profound beauty in our shared world.  In a spirit of hope, attentive prayer creates within each of us a desire for friendship.   In similar spirit, Teresa of Avila explored prayer as an intimate sharing between friends.  Prayer is being on terms of friendship with God, frequently conversing in secret with Him Who, we know, loves us

Prayer in this spirit can be about honouring the surprise of grace in the thrust of tragedy.  It grasps the generosity and raw energy that sustains wild creation. At its heart, is the silence of the soul’s awareness that enables us all to touch the centre of our existence. That moment of illumination is the still place between being and doing.  In more religious language, that is the God-moment: intimacy is the essence of God.

This leaves room for a vitalised relationship with others and the world around us.  Prayer becomes memory, surprise, actualisation, engagement, projection, sensitivity, wonder and silence.  Prayer is paying attention to the utterly mundane realities of life ‘where humans age and ache.’   Community with other searching minds and intentions, across the boundaries of difference, is essential to this discovery.  All that done, the end of prayer, as the intention of intimacy, is justice.

‘The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.’  – John Wesley

Liberation theologian, Jon Sobrino called this engagement with justice ‘solidarity’:

Solidarity is another name for the kind of love that moves feet, hands, heart, material goods, assistance and sacrifice towards the pain, danger, misfortune, disaster, repression or death of other persons or a whole people.  The aim is to share with them and help them rise up, become free, claim justice, rebuild.

The central thrust of Christianity is in the social holiness that inspired the genesis of Evangelicalism.  It is the heart of the Catholic tradition of the God incarnate.  In both ‘a deepening identification with the suffering, crucified Christ brings about solidarity with the poor that is not only theologically grounded but actually experienced. In the darkness of this hidden presence of God, the self is broken open to embrace the victimized, the hopeless, the dispossessed, the suffering ones of the world.’  (The Carmelite Nuns of Baltimore)

pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Mary Oliver 

Praying is paying attention to the hoping, suffering, awakening world around us and to our own inner discovery.

* ‘What is new and singular, excites that sentiment which, in strict propriety, is called Wonder …  Wonder, … and not any expectation of advantage from its discoveries, is the first principle which prompts mankind to the study of Philosophy …’  Adam Smith, Essays on Philosophical Subjects, (1795) ‘The History of Astronomy’, Introduction and Section 3, Para. 3.


Bill Lawton
11 July 2014

Posted in Paying Attention | 6 Comments

Anguish to be Reborn and Reborn


Do not ask us to answer again as then we answered.
For it is anguish to be reborn and reborn.

The evenings bring with them that same steady anguish to be reborn and reborn.  Evenings are always long, so long that by early morning hours I hope for that instant of calm where the mind’s turmoil ceases.  The anguish to be reborn and reborn waits its new day affirmation.

Waking evening thoughts are ablaze with ideas, with hopes, with distractions – yes, mostly distractions.  All-life has been an upsurge of people, events and discoveries but now the twilight moves to a steady different beat, an anguish to be reborn and reborn.

This shapes as a yearning for inner light, where the gods and goals of high ambition ground in that very human moment of self-discovery.  The songs of uplift days still echo: ‘my soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour’.  But the words shape differently.  Then, it was a rush into presence, now it is pause, a wait for rebirth. I cannot answer again as once I answered, for it is anguish to be reborn and reborn.

One recent long evening, this Judith Wright poem came freshly alive.  It gripped me with redemption’s possibility:

Spring, returner, knocker at the iron gates,
Why should you return? None wish to live again.
Locked in our mourning, in our sluggish age,
we stand and think of past springs, of deceits not yet forgotten.
Then we answered you in youth and joy; we threw
open our strongholds, and hung our walls with flowers.
Do not ask us to answer again as then we answered.
For it is anguish to be reborn and reborn:
at every return of the overmastering season
to shed our lives in pain, to waken into the cold,
to become naked, while with unbearable effort
we make way for the new sap that burns along old channels –
Wright Judith: “The Cedars”, Collected Poems 1942-1985. Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1998, p. 101.

The old channels of life were always about courage and persistence.  Now they burn with a yearning to be reborn.  Every vocational challenge has demanded translation into different and sometimes alien environments.  The outer priest has struggled with a prevailing conservatism bound and cautious of change.  The inner man has summoned his best imagination and artistry, yet aware that co-travellers will reduce the imagery and metaphor to meet their own standards of acceptability.  This is tension for despair and anguish for transformation.

Then …. we threw open our strongholds’ where the  treasures of spiritual resources offered pathways into celebrating shared humanity.  Then the Anglican Western tradition became a hallmark and openness to alternate liturgical and poetic reflections.  The past then was an awakening to beauty.

That experience of change had profound influence on my life values.  Working in the long-term with parishioners searching for a fresh experience of God and self, constrained by a conservative church tradition is the yet-to-be reborn past.  It has left me with a path still to explore in a present religious wilderness.  If I may steal the image, ‘the new sap that burns along old channels’ is a journey with the Desert Fathers. Life beckons into fresh discoveries and fresh isolation.  Life is no more an open stronghold.  It is an anguish to be reborn and reborn.

This last Mothers’ Day weekend our large Australian family contingent gathered on the south coast.  We were there to celebrate on the Saturday the 50th birthday of our second daughter and her husband.  Those of us who could still face church joined again on the Sunday.  Margaret and I sat with our youngest son, his wife and their two small boys – three generations of one family together in church, almost a generational time-warp.

The service was upbeat, too much so for me.  The band thumped out choruses like old-time revival but for me set to unsingable tunes.  The sermon was mainstream, solid, rational and helpfully orthodox.  Various women from the congregation offered advice, insight, prayer and challenge.  It was Sydney Diocese on display with a huge involved, mildly charismatic audience and just the hint of pastoral tension.  We were once more in the comforting spring-time world of youth.

As the sermon came to its conclusion a voice from a distant corner of the hall posed a question about why Jesus as God expressed ignorance on some matters of divine foreknowledge.  The speaker waved in my direction, naming me and asking if I might give the answer.  I won’t labour through the next stages of what then took place.

As I looked around I noted the presence of at least six people, including the distant interrupter, that I had helped train for ministry at Theological College.  They had exercised their various ministries and now in retirement lived around the district and are regulars at church.  Each embraced me with warmth and acceptance.  One of long and beautiful acquaintance simply commented, ‘All we have left to give is ourselves’.  It was the gift of a man reborn.

This spiritual wanderer for that Sunday faced three conservative strongholds of his past – a family (mostly) together in church, a sturdy Evangelical uplift and the words of former students affirming my role in their vocational formation.

In the twenty-five years since, I have journeyed into a distant land yet, for that moment, could regather the essence of the past.  But did I BELONG in any meaningful sense?  There was an upswelling response:

Do not ask us to answer again as then we answered.
For it is anguish to be reborn and reborn.

In post reflection, I know that belonging is more than celebrating the past with like-minded friends, it is about journeying through metaphor.  Life is packed with images that for the moment capture and help define both spirit and journey.  Those images shape the courage and persistence that mark life.  They are all ways of grasping life’s meaning, adding to and not displacing.  Each moment shapes an epic poem of life discovery.

In past, now ancient Sundays, I opened my inner self, sharing from that centre my heart of discovery.  There you will touch people in ways you can never imagine or define.  And they having met you in spirit will move on always adding never displacing.  In the dark night of your own being this is faith consummated in the body and soul of another.  ‘All we have left to give is ourselves’ as the gift of someone reborn.

During that Mothers’ Day weekend, I read these words in Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings:

“Faith is the marriage of God and the Soul” (St John of the Cross).

Faith is: it cannot, therefore, be comprehended, far less identified with, the formularies in which we paraphrase what is.

- “en una noche oscura”. The Dark Night of the Soul – so dark that we may not even look for faith.  The night in Gethsemane when the last friends left you have fallen asleep, all the others are seeking your downfall, and God is silent, as the marriage is consummated.

Translated Leif Sjöberg and W H Auden, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964, p. 81.

So, do not ask me to answer again as then I answered, for it is anguish to be reborn and reborn.

Bill Lawton, 21 May 2014 – a post-theist reflection


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Honouring Bishop John Charles McIntyre

John McIntyre at Hanging Rock in the Retreat Days prior to his Consecration as Bishop

John McIntyre at Hanging Rock in the Retreat Days prior to his Consecration as Bishop

Matthew 18: 1-5, 10-14

The disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’  He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me …

‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven, for the Son of Man came to save the lost’. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.  So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.

John and I had a friendship that lasted through the best and the hardest of times.   At one point, as John and Jan began their ministry at St Saviour’s, we travelled together to Chicago.   David Claydon, then heading the Church Missionary Society had urged us to attend an urban conference there that he virtually guaranteed would revolutionise our inner city ministries.  John was captivated by contacts with Indigenous programs we saw in the northern USA and Canada.

Links with the Yonge Street Mission in Toronto transformed my responses to theology and ministry.  My energies were further awakened by programs for disadvantaged people empowered by the Nazarene Church in Los AngelesJim Wallis of the Sojourners Community in Washington DC bound our homeward journey to shaping intentional communities committed to justice as the heartbeat of the Gospel.

Despite the almost twenty year difference in our ages, John and I shared common goals and a sense of common destiny.  I am shattered by his untimely death.  I had always expected that John would be speaking at my funeral.  It seems so untimely that I should be standing here.  John’s was a death too sudden.

When Jan did me the great honour of asking me to offer this funeral homily, I instantly thought of 2 Samuel chapter I: ‘David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan … beloved and lovely!  I am distressed for you my brother Jonathan: greatly beloved were you to me …’ (verses 17-27).   Two men were bound in a closely woven friendship.  Tears prevent my reading these words again.  Slowly a friendship theme from Matthew’s Gospel captured my attention.

Only weeks ago, John and I talked and laughed together on the phone.  Emails passed between us.  We planned an upcoming breakfast, spoke about a pending conference and reflected on his recent synod address.  He talked with great warmth about his and Jan’s connections with the Church in Rwanda.  There was an edge to John that kept each of us thinking radically about human values.  He offered a faith challenge to live courageously.  By this we might honour that other man Jesus who summoned John’s and our allegiance.

We gather from many different backgrounds in St Saviour’s Church Redfern, in St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne and in St Paul’s Cathedral Sale.   We reflect the variety of John and Jan’s church and community outreach.  John, at 62 years was still active and forward looking, planning fresh diocesan initiatives.  He was our common ground linking our various political, social and ethical concerns.  His words and his actions challenged us to think again about the way we value each other.  How best could we celebrate difference as the mark of a mature church and society?   He was a voice calling community and church to set the outsider at their centre.

To use the words of today’s Bible passage, he set in our midst a little child – the most vulnerable, the homeless, the marginalised, the disfavoured.  His words and actions taught that giving them voice and place is the measure of a church and society built on honourable and integrated foundations.

The political and religious tensions of the long ago Bible world are very different from our own.  But an interesting dynamic flows through the chapters preceding the text read in this service.  The question on everyone’s lips was ‘where does power lie’?  A community torn by invasion and corruption looked for leadership – a messianic figure who might restore dignity and national identity.

The disciples of Jesus, a gathering of tradespeople, women of social substance and a few political radicals, struggled for group power.  The Messiah image had also caught their attention.  They would eventually frame their own power question: ‘Who will sit at your right and left hand when you come into your kingdom’?  ‘Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’?  The text translation read to you misses a simple connecting word: who then, who in the light of all our long urging for power and position will bring leadership into a confused society and church?

‘Jesus called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me”.’

The intention seems obvious.  You take the weakest and most vulnerable as the measure of greatness.  At first saying, that sounds ridiculous.  Leadership naturally falls to those socially and academically trained for it.  Leading demands wisdom, the ability to achieve goals and a sense of destiny.  But stay with the challenge.  Leadership requires the ability to listen and empathise.  Leadership owns willingness to change direction and become open to fresh opportunity.  Leadership takes a journey with those being led.

It must be clear why I chose this Bible text for today’s memorial of John’s life.  John was a leader who achieved greatness by listening to others and standing alongside them.  He gave voice to those who find themselves outside the conventions of power.

Our friendship stretched over decades.  For long periods we had met for a weekly lunch and an occasional breakfast.  We shared over extended phone and email conversations and all with an easy intimacy.  We could talk about our inner life and the situations and people we both confronted.   We forgave each other’s failings and misdirections; we longed for each other’s dreams.  We shared, as each of you did, the joy of the commonplace.

John taught and lived the childlike qualities of openness, discovery, generosity and vulnerability.  We saw this in him when he taught ethics at Ridley College.  He reflected this in his years with Indigenous people and generally in the Redfern community. You saw this again when he served as the 11th Bishop of Gippsland.  He stood with the marginalised in ways that John’s uncle, the Reverend Laurie McIntyre, Canon Emeritus of St David’s Cathedral Hobart, has so fully outlined in his eulogy.  This audience, across a wide range of social and economic diversity, has experienced the power and the passion of John’s willingness to take a generous journey with you.

When long ago, the Gospel writer Matthew recorded the teaching of Jesus, he spoke about the character and attitude of those given leadership in the church.  The disciples’ question about ‘greatness’ echoes through the whole chapter.  Christians are members of a new community, marked out by their character and conduct.  If childlikeness is our measure then our community is about inclusion, not debates about who cannot belong.  And the model of all childlikeness is that Man who bore to us the image of God – in Matthew’s terms, the man who identified with our sin, dying for sinners.  The child image of the text resolves itself around the larger image of vulnerability.

This is what it means to be Christ-like.  This story and John’s story are not about separated sainthood; they are about identification with each other.  Verse 5 of the text says plainly that to welcome the vulnerable is to welcome Christ.   The challenge for us all is to undergo a change of values.  To use the old language, now corrupted by easy evangelism, it is ‘to be converted’.  Jesus spoke as much about a change of attitude as he did a change of heart.  This is to be outward as well as inward.  We are called to live what we say we believe.

That is the touchstone of what follows in the Bible text.  Today’s reading passed over some harsh challenges condemning hypocrisy, fault-finding, and leaders who cause others to sin and fall away.  Even so, let the heart of that message stay with you.  Our deeds and actions may indeed condemn us.  But the overriding emphasis is to be gentle with one another.  We must live love responsibly, as our daily exercise.   This sort of care demands that you face your own failings so that you can generously accept and forgive others.

John spoke up for Indigenous people, women in ministry and the dignity of gay people.  His ministry about inclusion had a theological and social edge to it.  John had no patience with sentimentality or positioning himself in someone else’s debate.  Sometimes he was called a liberal or progressive Christian, sometimes a radical activist.  Ignore the qualifications; he was none of these.  John stood in the mainstream of Christian life and ministry.  John was part of that gloriously open and diverse Christianity that lives the art of gentle persuasion.

He and I stood at opposite ends of some religious issues.  That must be true of many of you attending today’s services here and in Melbourne and later in Sale.  But we can still be one in a passion for change; we can be one in the determination to be ready listeners; we can be one in living vulnerably for others; we can be one without needless qualifications; and in the church we can be one across the multitude of difference – because to welcome the other is to welcome Christ.

With that generosity of heart we seek across the boundaries of difference.  In this company of Jesus, again to use Matthew’s term, we ‘see the face of the Father’ (Matthew 18:10).  John McIntyre revealed this as pastor, priest, bishop, friend, son, brother, husband, nephew.  You name that generosity with gratitude in your inner being.

Like the shepherd in today’s reading, John embraced those who had wandered and those who stood outside the community of faith.  Sometimes he literally held you in his arms.  You know, as I did, the embrace and restoration of that love.

There is a gap in all our lives, touched with the memories of a man who lived what he believed.  He loved best because he understood the depth of a love that could reach beyond a small circle of acquaintance.  In everything Jan, you were his mainstay.  You were the centre of his conversation and the model of generous acceptance.

We embrace you Jan, your children Jessica, Paul and Lisa, John’s parents Ken and Vicky, his brother Kenneth Bruce and sister Barbara.  And all our words, though drawn from pain and shock, honour John’s love and constancy.

A mutual friend Fr David Conolly, a Melbourne priest also distinguished for his long multi-faceted ministry, composed this poem for today’s service.  It is offered here as his and our memorial to John:

“See, I am sending my messenger
ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’ ”

John the voice –
for those who have no voice,
for those who fear to speak,
for those whose voice is spurned;

John the voice crying out –
in spoken word,
in public press,
in lofty conclaves and quiet conversation;

John the voice crying out in the wilderness –
of human lovelessness and rejection,
of a heedless and heartless world,
of a cautious and conflicted church;

John the voice crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight’ –
the way of justice,
the path of acceptance,
the way of risky love, the Cross.

John – forerunner and Baptist
John – humble servant and pastor of the flock;

one mission shared,
one Master followed,
one destiny found.

Thanks, eternal thanks.

I re-gather the concluding words of Laurie McIntyre’s eulogy: ‘John died in the glorious hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.   He rests in that peace.’

Bill Lawton with thanks to David Conolly for his poem.

A Homily Offered on the Occasion of a Funeral Service Conducted at St Saviour’s Church, Redfern, NSW to Celebrate the Life of the Right Reverend John Charles McIntyre, 11th Bishop of Gippsland – 17 June 2014, the Feast of St Alban, Martyr (Book of Common Prayer).



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The dense feel of city living

The dense feel of city living

IMG_0489I love the dense feel of city living.  Apartment blocks dot the skyline.  The narrow back streets that once housed Sydney’s labourers and wharf workers are steadily giving way to million and more dollar investment.  The footpaths are always busy.  The cross-roads stream with traffic.  Some days you can feel you are an isolated fragment of life trapped in an incessant flow of anonymous movement.  And then, beyond every expectation, someone calls your name, you surprise someone with a smile. Beauty and perseverance grasp your imagination.  The city is alive with hope.

Last summer I watched this forty-ish homeless man dodge through the traffic with his squeegee mop to clean car windows.  A quick traffic light change from green to red and he was back on the pavement pocketing a few coins.  So, with nothing better to do than wait for the next green light I asked about his day.  Something stirred me to ask about his life.  In two sentences he spoke of personal and family loss, then commented that he was working for his Higher School Certificate.

We crossed paths again at the same intersection a week later and he added that he planned to study law.  This man’s courage and determination inspired me.  We didn’t catch up again for some months.  That was probably more about my taking other routes for I am sure he spent every day at the same road crossing.  Last week we spoke once more.  ‘How’s study?’ I greeted him.  ‘Distinctions in my 1st Semester law course’, he replied.

Now you may think that a very ordinary story, but it reminded me of the years spent in parish ministry on all these surrounding streets.  Some readers will know the area well because they helped fund what we did.  Others worked in the parish office meeting forty-ish homeless men and women who needed food for the day and a friend to ask after their health.  And in this they were living Jesus’ commands as set out in Matthew’s Gospel chapter 25.

We have nothing more precious to give than a willingness to look out for each other, to see the best in one another and to hope – to make life become that beautiful biblical theme so full of promise and acceptance.  I offer this because it is more than a story: it is a parable of life.  We each live in the crowded pressure that can make us question our identity and worth.  And then circumstance creates a connection with someone else.  When we stop comparing ourselves and stop making judgments about other’s lives, we can happen on an unimagined beauty and perseverance.

I had known this woman in her forties for years: we met close by this same intersection.  She too shared her story,though as an old friend.  But there were the same hints of loss and tragedy.  She looked me in the eye for just a moment and said quietly ‘You are the light that lightens my path’.   So strange because we had only ever talked about the trivial small-town journeys we had both taken and the small triumphs that had accompanied them.  But we knew we were both accepted in each other’s presence.

That surprisingly is the centre of the Christian gospel.  Its heart is acceptance by the one who so loved the world that he gave.  And the Gospel stories are just as remarkable because they by-pass the religious jargon in which we seek to conceal our identities. They tell us about the Man who said of an unnamed man and an unnamed woman that their faith was great and their life was held in the generosity of divine love.

The dense feel of city living

City Living – Sydney Arcade
Sydney Eye, 2010

Some people question why, in earlier parish days as now, we didn’t talk more about judgment, sin and faith.  They are easy words to say and too often full of avoidance. They assume too much of one person’s piety and another person’s depravity.  Of course we need checks when we let our lives slip. Of course there will be times when we help other people to avoid the same mishaps and find better directions for their life.  But none of that is real till we are willing to tread in the footsteps of daily encounter as a light to lighten another’s path.

After all is that teaching not directly from Jesus himself.  In the dense feel of city living: ‘Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven … Inasmuch as you did this to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me’.

Bill Lawton

20 June 2012.

To friends who share with us in the human journey.  Revised and reprinted from the St Alban’s Epping NSW Parish News of August 2012

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Stand firm as lights to our generation

Stand firm as lights to our generation

Stand firm as lights to our generation is the thrust of the central message of today’s Gospel reading from Mark chapter 1 verse 4-11.  Hold in your mind the possibility that the urgency of John the Baptist was about the need for people to stand firm in the face of social disintegration, community violence and neighbourly hatred.  I read the Baptism story told here as a dramatic way of expressing Jesus’ more positive teaching that we all should be lights to our generation.

In a moment I will offer an interpretation this Gospel reading.  I will reshape words and so suggest fresh ideas.  But before we engage the detail of Mark’s text, let me step back to catch your attention with the power and subtlety of words:

There’s glory for you!’ [said Humpty Dumpty].
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’ – Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.


I wonder what your response to that question would be – who is the master, the word a person speaks to you or the meaning and the actions that lie behind it?  It seems a simple enough question with an equally simple answer – of course we measure people and events by the things they actually achieve.  But then words do really matter.  They are the way we shape our thoughts and some of our most preciously guarded ideas and beliefs.  Most of us, most of the time, want to communicate these from the very depth of our being.  To say ‘I love you’, ‘I care deeply about you’ has a magic all its own: words like these express our deepest relationship with those around and us and close to us. These are times when we want to make our words count: to speak from the heart.

One of my favourite activities is writing professionally.  I mean setting out ideas that capture my energy and imagination.  Sometimes I invent words: they come out of the sound or feeling of something.  Indeed that is the way many words have entered the English language.  In time we use them as if they are just ordinary words with fixed meanings – but that was never their intention.  When we created them – and we all manage this even if sometimes inelegantly – the feeling is much more than the word uttered.  We accompany words like these with a tone of voice and a body-energy.  The word is really us at our deepest, most awakened self.


Now you may feel that is a very odd beginning to a sermon on a Bible text.  But if you get my meaning here you will sense that Mark also was using words in special ways.  And he was the master of the words he used – not the other way round.  I am not suggesting that Mark invented them but the original words that are central to today’s Bible passage have meanings very different to way we often interpret them.  Words express emotions.

Words like ‘baptism’, ‘repentance’ and ‘forgiveness’ that we take for granted as standard Christian words, were unusual – we might call them cultic – in Mark’s day.  I tried to find alternative words for these as I translated the text for this sermon, but couldn’t find anything that quite matched Mark’s original intention.  As best we can, we need to awaken our imagination to capture how the words used here might have sounded to Mark’s readers

Something new and special had happened.   Mark opened his account of the Gospel story with John, whom he called ‘the baptizer’ and ‘the preacher’ – yes I know your English text puts it differently, but that is the way Mark stated John’s identity as well as his role.  John did his preaching through an act our text called ‘baptism’.

We Christians of later date have bound that word to water, a liturgy, confession of Jesus and belief in the Trinity.  For us the word has special and sacred meaning: they are part of our distinct and evolved Christian dialect.  When we Anglicans speak about baptism we conjure up a picture of a gathered family, a font and a small baby.  If we were Baptists the image would change but the overall effect would be much the same.  Baptism for us is a sacramental act.

But John used the word in a much more dramatic or prophetic way.  In his time, the word ‘baptizing’ meant ‘overwhelming’.  A ship at sea might be baptized or overwhelmed by a storm.  Jesus himself pointed to his coming death and called it his ‘baptism’.  No water at all was involved in that meaning: it was just a colourful, imaginative synonym about being overwhelmed by suffering and death.

The word was not purely negative: you might be said to baptize or dye your clothes.  You could also be baptized by joy or as here in the text itself be baptized in the Holy Spirit.  In other words the term ‘baptism’ as used in our text carries the sense of an awakening to joy.  There is one more possible interpretation derived from Semitic language: in its root meaning in Palestine ‘to baptize’ may also have the sense of ‘to stand erect like a pillar’[3].


As you reflect on today’s text at least hold in your mind the possibility that the urgency of John was about the need for people to stand firm in the face of social disintegration, community violence and neighbourly hatred.  Perhaps it was a dramatic way of expressing Jesus’ more positive teaching that we all should stand firm as lights to our generation.

For the elderly in this congregation that may seem like a hill too steep to climb.  But think what life has offered you in dignity, no matter how many losses have strewn your way.  Recall the achievements of bringing up families and still holding on to a faith that has sustained you, in many cases, from childhood.  Stand like pillars with those qualities – not to condemn other people who live their lives differently, but through them to add to the value of life.  Go on offering the positive things that life has taught you.  Show in doing this that the gifts of the Holy Spirit for you are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, goodness, strength with gentleness and faith (Galatians 5:23) – these are the pillars that sustain the human temple.

In today’s text, there is indeed water and some sort of ceremony.  Notice that the water and ceremony were incidental to the sense of being overwhelmed by something new, transforming and awakening.  So soon as you recall that last experience of friendship touching heart to heart, of the embrace of love, of living courageously through the tragedy of death or loss you will all know that experience.  You sensed renewal.

When some of you married, there was a ceremony and a celebration but marriage was more than a ceremony, it was a lifetime of discovery.  You literally awakened to each other but then went on emotionally awakening to fresh insights into life together.  You speak of the event but your imagination fills it with another more profound meaning.  Many of you have faced death and the end of a relationship.  Again there was a ceremony and maybe a wake but the memory of the death and the person have lingered in your life. You speak of the event but your imagination fills it with another more profound meaning.

Today’s Gospel story is not primarily about a ceremony on the Jordan River bank or a ritual that we perform after the birth of our children.  Baptism was a word to challenge the imagination and the emotions: it spoke beyond the water to an awakening to wonder and the coming of the Holy Sprit that was the beginning of their transformation.


Mark intended us to understand that this transformation had begun with the preaching of John the Baptist – the last of the Old Covenant prophets.  Like them John preached and dressed in a way that challenged convention.  When we read this without background, the language of your English text about John being ‘clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and [eating] locusts and wild honey’ seems to confuse the image.  Mark’s intention was to highlight John’s likeness to ancient prophets like Elijah and Elisha.  Mark drew his parallels even more tightly by beginning this whole story with a quotation from the prophecy of Isaiah.

The early reader was left in no doubt that here on the bank of the River Jordan stood a man proclaiming the end of life as people had known it.  His baptism was about the death of the past and an awakening to something utterly new.  Life is an adventure and opportunity for fresh discovery.  This is the moment in the story when we encounter Jesus.  He, said John, would ‘baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

Notice something here that rapid Bible reading may miss.  The other Gospels begin with accounts of Jesus’ birth or as in John his eternal generation from God.  Mark commences with the preaching.  It is as if he sees the Christian faith growing out of this confrontation between giant personalities and a great moment of decision.  In this proclamation of baptism Jesus discovered his own great awakening.  God’s words affirm him and his future ministry: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Mark says simply ’the heavens were split open, torn apart and the Spirit descended … on him’.  Mark has a surprise in mind for the careful reader and listener to his Gospel.  He repeats that image of tearing in chapter 15 and verse 38.  This time it is the curtain in the Temple seen not by the insiders to religion but by an outsider, a Roman centurion.

In Mark’s telling, this awakening of Jesus at baptism, through the tearing of the heavens, was to a ministry where the barriers and divisions that we and our community set up are broken down.  Jesus’ baptism, like his death, is a call to rid ourselves of bigotry, isolation, rejection of difference – to be open to change and the possibility that life may still hold adventure and opportunity for fresh discovery.  You are never too old to practice love, forgiveness and acceptance.

The crowds who had gathered sensed the drama of the moment: something new, fresh and demanding was challenging the old ways and promising a new beginning.  Jesus comes as the disturber of our past, the awakener to our present and the hope of our future.  He comes with his own words and assurances, but he offers more than words.  Discipleship is an embrace that takes us into new discoveries and fresh responsibilities of loving and living with integrity.


When you follow Jesus, your words must always translate into actions such as these.  Jesus’ greatest condemnation was against those who failed to turn sacred words into service to others.  Actions will add meaning and colour to the promises we make to each other.  But Jesus also demands that you be people of your word

I often ask myself what is the key command of the Christian Gospel.  A series of different biblical images come to mind – preach the gospel, love God with heart and mind, face life and death knowing the power of God to overcome both.  But one major challenge resounds from the whole Bible; love in thought, word and deed.  These very terms are found in John’s first epistle: ‘Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions’ (1 John 3:18 – New Living Translation).

I came across this brief commentary on today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel and it seemed to me to summarize its message perfectly.  So, I leave it with you:

My desire is to awaken people to see reality and join with God in helping to renovate the world in which we live. I write as one in need of much renovation myself. When I think about the city in which I live and the stuff that is happening in our world and my own life, I find myself getting cynical at times.

… Jesus … seems to be the only one who was able to live a  genuine concern for people’s lives. He was willing to confront the fraud and hypocrisy that he found in the religious and political institutions of his day for the sake of the oppressed …

My hope is to pick up the [morning paper] and the Sacred Text, and figure out how to follow Jesus more fully in this world. (J R Woodward)

Stand firm as lights to our generation.

Bill Lawton – 8 January 2012

An address given at St Nicolas’ Church, Coogee, NSW on 8 January 2012 based on the Gospel Lectionary reading Mark 1: 4-11, ‘The Baptism of the Lord’.

[1] Troilus and Cressida, Act V, scene III

[2] “Recognition of one’s sins as sins” is an act of one’s intelligence and moral conscience. It involves knowing that certain actions are sinful, recognizing such actions in oneself as more than just lapses of praxis, and analyzing one’s motives for sin as deeply as one can. For example, stealing from someone must be seen not only as a crime but also as a sin against another human and a violation of God’s demands of us within the covenant. It also involves realizing that such acts are part of deeper patterns of relatedness and that they are motivated by some of the most profound and darkest elements in our being.  Rabbinic observation quoted from David R. Blumenthal, “Repentance and Forgiveness”,

[3] This is a loose interpretation based partly on later Islamic use (  I have persisted with this image to suit my own context rather than to justify this interpretation.  However, see also


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Where Easter embraces Christmas

Where Easter embraces Christmas

I am honoured to be asked to speak at this combined service where each of us acknowledges that what we hold in common is more precious than either our fractured histories or past prejudices.  Here we learn to look each other in the eye and celebrate the differences that are the essence of our humanity and that add quality and depth to the faith journey we share.

Today’s Gospel reading [Matthew 21:1-10], with each reading through Holy Week, explores the pathos and tragedy of one man’s journey that remains the centrepiece of our Christian affirmation.  It is Jesus’ unique story from Palm Procession to Upper Room to Calvary.  Each of us in our own way will reflect on what that man’s dying and re-birth means for our own dying and re-birth.  It will awaken in us the power of redemption, a refreshed discipleship, a renewed commitment to be God’s people for our own time.

Suddenly the text demands a different reading.  It is not a mere recollection of a past event, nor the celebration of one more martyr for a cause.  We may all engage the theology of this text in different ways, we may understand Jesus’ life and ministry within the different frameworks of our upbringing or personal awakening.  But the awesome quality of this text is to place the living God at the centre of our discovery of what it means to be human.

Palm Sunday is the story of people distracted by power, arrogance, prejudice, ethnic rivalry and isolation.  The image repeats these tensions in each subsequent event that marks the road to Calvary.   There is a moment of gathering, where people sit together in an Upper Room, just as we do this morning, sense each other’s presence and embrace the other.  But almost at once they too are distracted by power, arrogance, prejudice, ethnic rivalry and isolation.  The pattern of life around us tells its own squalid story of the same power, arrogance, prejudice, ethnic rivalry and isolation.

Then and now the question shapes about leadership based on love, acceptance and generosity of spirit.  Then and now, the destiny of the Christian community is to challenge the false values that turn our eyes away from each other.  There, in the very seeing and inner awareness of the other we are in the presence of God and we discover that our own humanity is bound up with the other.  Why else did Jesus so intensely link love of God, love of neighbour and love of enemy.

Here I want to focus the Gospel story in a life-changing experience.  My adventures with Australian Indigenous people began with a chance meeting almost forty years ago.  On a Western Australian inland track, where the lizard trails skirt the Gibson and Great Victoria deserts, I squatted with a bush man as he sketched a dust map with his finger.  We were on a level sacred plain where red dust affirmed the commonality of our shared humanity.  We looked at each other eye to eye.  We saw each other as equals.

My memories of that first ‘meeting’ is tinged with the pain of unused calf muscles, my feet on the red desert dust beneath me a reminder that I too was a man of the earth.  The image has stayed with me all my days and I face the silence of our churches over refugees, ethnic hatreds, prejudice and the isolation of those abandoned by our systems.  I learn to live with the determination that the greatest gift we all have is to steadily look each other in the eye and embrace difference.

Meeting each other without pretence and open to fresh discovery is where Easter embraces Christmas.  So, out of season yet in the spirit of Easter I offer a summary of today’s address in these amended words from a Christmas prayer:

Blessed are you [Jesus, neighbour and stranger],
that your cradle was so low that shepherds,
poorest and simplest of earthly folk,
could yet kneel beside it,
and look level-eyed into the face of God.[i]

Bill Lawton – 17 April 2011  

Address at a Combined Service for Palm (Passion) Sunday held at the Uniting Church, Oxford Street, Paddington, NSW, 17 April 2011.

[1] The prayer in its original was composed by Robert Nelson Spencer, Episcopal Bishop of West Missouri, 1930-1949 – for a description of the text see The Anglican Digest, Winter 2010, p.12 –

Blessed art Thou, O Christmas Christ,
that Thy cradle was so low
that shepherds could yet kneel beside it,
and look level eyed into the face of God.

Blessed art Thou, that Thy cradle was so high
that the Magi could yet come to it
by a star’s pathway,
to hazard their wisdom’s store
into Thy Baby hands.

Blessed art Thou, that having grown to manhood,
and being a carpenter,
Thou didst fashion a Christmas Altar,
like unto Thy cradle,

So that all simplicity and all wisdom,
all poverty and all wealth,
all righteousness and all penitence for sin,
might find sanctuary there.

Be this our Christmas haste,
O Christmas Christ, to seek that Altar,
and, at this season of Thy Birth,
unafraid of the Time’s complaint,
may we be found kneeling still. Amen.


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Where words translate into actions

Where words translate into actions

The root of all genuine religious experience is where words translate into actions.  This is the life challenge that crosses religious and cultural barriers.  At heart THIS is what defines us as Christian.  It is the rock-hard centre of Jesus’ teaching:

Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock … Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.’  From the Gospel Reading set for a Dedication Festival - Mt: 7:24-29 (NIV).


On a day such as this when you celebrate the dedication of St Jude’s Church, Randwick, and your own daily dedication as followers of Jesus it seems obvious to read Scriptures about Temple and house building.  Given the history of our religion these are obvious enough images.  They provide comfortable language that seems to distinguish believers from unbelievers, wise people from foolish.  The images pass easily into children’s action songs or everyday moralising about ‘the good life’.   Read in a larger context they surprise us as a summary of that long section of Scripture we call the Sermon on the Mount.   With a shock we discover these few verses contain the very substratum of our religion.

Some years back I accompanied a group of School Year 7-10 young people on a visit to the Nan Tien Temple at Wollongong.  One Year 8 girl asked our monk guide if he could explain the Buddhist religion.  He replied very quietly ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted … Everyone who hears these words and puts them into practice is like a wise person who built their house on the rock’.  This he explained was the root of all genuine religious experience where words translate into actions.  This is the life challenge that crosses religious and cultural barriers.  At heart THIS is what defines us as Christian.

Let me put the theme of this text to you another way by intertwining its insights with the words of a contemporary spiritual teacher:

The Teacher says: I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain!  I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it, or fix it … And Jesus said: ‘You’re blessed when you are at the end of your rope.  With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule’ (Matthew 5:2).

The Teacher says: I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”… And Jesus said: ‘You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you.  Only then can you be embraced by the one most dear to you’ (Matthew 5:3).

The Teacher says: It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here.  I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back … And Jesus said: ‘Here is a simple rule-of-thumb guide for behaviour: ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them.  Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get’ (Matthew 7:12).

The Teacher says: I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments[1]And Jesus said: ‘You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less.  That’s the moment you find yourself proud owners of everything that can’t be bought’ (Matthew 5:4).

This is the heart of Jesus’ teaching: Jesus calls these challenges ‘foundational words … not incidental additions to your life’ (Matthew 7:24). [2]  His words don’t glow with success and ambition; they are not about protection or achievement.  Instead, ‘the Christ who teaches this, lives and suffers, loves and fears, tries and fails.  Above all else the Christ in you strives to learn what she teaches, to live what he suffers, to love what she fears.  Sound familiar?   The Sermon on the Mount is every person’s life journey’.[3]


For the briefest moment Jesus spoke to his followers from a mountain clearing.  That is the place of our longing, where all is well and life seems integrated and secure.  We take his words as ointment to our suffering and promise of God’s presence.

But read the story carefully.  It begins and ends with human tragedy: a leper says to Jesus ‘Master, if you want to, you can heal my body’ (Matthew 8:2).  Jesus’ teaching drives us from mountaintop to our neighbourhood.  Or as many contemporary spiritual writers comment: ‘God doesn’t dwell on mountaintops, or in the midst of the desert, or at the ends of the earth. God dwells with men and women.  God lives in the towns and cities of the world.[4]  Words translate into actions.

Two experiences set a complex pattern of understanding what this means.   One has been a long association with young people through school and conference involvement.  These, young adults, located mainly in independent and Catholic schools across Sydney, Perth and Hobart showed an intense interest in social change.  They wanted to know what part they could play in making a difference.  Their questions searched what I, as a commentator and then pastor and street worker, could teach them about injustice and poverty in their communities.  They spoke involvement, not merely words, but actions.

The other is a more distant world of street connection.  You watch the steady stream of young people determined to leave behind abuse and neglect and then finding themselves trapped in a new street cycle of addiction and sex.  It is easy to ignore these young people and not see behind the anxiety and bravado, the struggle to be heard, to change direction, to find hope.  At the end of the day, they have the same dreams for a better world.  Mere words need to translate into actions.

I worked with these people intensely for ten years – and continued to meet with some of their peers through the services of Mission Australia.  In those earlier days I was a church pastor helping run basic services that offered hope and a new beginning and the realisation that despite all – these young people were ‘acceptable’.  Fifty street people would come away on a camp; ten transsexual workers would join the outreach worker for abseiling; another outreach worker contacted under-age people in the brothels

The conversations always came back to living with hope, of finding beauty in themselves, of knowing that they mattered even when their world seemed to deny this.  I had met him at a Mission Australia youth program and then accidentally the next day we bumped into each other again at the bus stop.  The conversation began with his drug dependence but moved quickly to the excitement of the program he was part of and the discoveries he was making about himself.  Whatever in his past had locked and overpowered him, he was now facing positive new directions.

Sharing with young adults, sharing with street people, sharing with each other, is where words translate into actions.

At such a moment to sit and listen without judgment is to walk in the fire of another’s life.  It is to sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it, or fix it.   There is no invading the other’s life, or treating them as victim to be rescued.  Quite the contrary, this is a journey where the other person has intrinsic value.   Indigenous poet Noel Davis describes this as ‘meeting your own face in the mirror’.[5]


Something larger than yourself comes alive.  You see your face reflected in the other’s mirror.  Jesus called this discovery ‘repentance’.  In ancient use the word meant ‘beyond the mind’ or ‘the shifting of mind’.  It is about stretching or pushing beyond the boundaries with which we normally think and feel.  Irish poet John O’Donohue describes this as where ‘the wings of the heart make their own skies’.  Repentance is letting go of rigidity and seeing the other person to have supreme value and dignity.

When we meet people who have experienced abuse and privation, we sense in them that they have discovered the greatest of all gifts, how to survive. And yet, when they talk about their inner journey through these crises, the survival that matters is their endurance, their unquenchable spirit, their sense of wonder that the spark of life was not extinguished. They have plumbed the depths of what it means to be human and mortal.  In these dark encounters, their ongoing awakening to life itself has surprised them.  This is the driving energy of the Sermon on the Mount

Broken body and spirit must be healed.  Read Matthew’s Gospel text from chapter 4 through to chapter 8 and Jesus’ message about coming down from our mountain tops and standing full front in the market place is clear: bring your energy to bear; reach beyond words, embrace with your love. Christianity is always about body – your body, my body, every body.  This is Christianity’s distinctive.  It is what urged the early disciples to share Jesus message because words translate into actions.


‘If you want to, you can heal my body’.  It is all a matter of choice.  And that is the point of today’s Gospel reading.  It is not addressed to the outsider; it is a word for each us here and it is about the choices we make.  We build with substance or we build carelessly.  Think of its manifold applications as we reflect on the way we bring up our children, organise our relationships, decide on the way we go about work.  None of these seem the stuff of mission and evangelism but they are the heart of Jesus’ teaching in this extended passage.

He has spoken about the most basic aspects of our living – our desires, our ambitions, our wealth, our fragility, the things that fill our minds and lives.  And all these can become the heart-beat of love for the other.  The sacred touches the ordinary to make all things extraordinary. This interchange between the ordinary and the extraordinary is the stuff of life.

The teachings weren’t unique.  The Sermon on the Mount parallels Moses proclaiming the Ten Commandments on Mt Sinai.  It also suggests the Buddha emerging from his meditative, ‘mountain’ experience to teach the Dhammapada (The Sayings of the Buddha).  The comparisons are mind teasing.

The Sermon on the Mount is not unique – but it is a powerful expression of inner motivation.  It is every person’s sermon.  It asks you to reflect on your deepest resentments and broadest sympathies.  It is the platinum rule; paying forward greater kindness than you have ever received, knowing that you are creating the type of world that that will be a joy to reside in.  It calls you to find value in inner beauty rather than outer form.  It reminds you that on this quest, you have all that you need, if you will dare to look inside.  You have all the experience, all the strength, all the resources you need. [6]

Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Thomas emphasise this: ‘If you bring forth that which is within you, what you bring forth will save you.  If you do not bring forth that which is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’[7]

I feel able to say this with full conviction.  Ten years with street people and sex workers and later with Indigenous communities in remote Australia taught me that people make choices – they are not victims.  Their choices may be circumscribed and their lives complex, even chaotic, but deep within they love and yearn.  They do not need our charity or condescension.  We share with them a lived humanity and that very sharing is the presence of God.  Hear me say this again: when you really see the other you ‘find value in inner beauty rather than outer form’.  You realise ‘that on this quest, you have all that you need, if you will dare to look inside.  You have all the experience, all the strength, all the resources you need.’

An often-quoted and supposedly Hindu story makes this same point:

Shiva tells a lesser god that he will hide himself on the earth so that the most dedicated can search and find him.
The lesser god asks, ‘Well, where will you hide yourself? Will it be on top of a mountain?’
‘No,’ Shiva responds. ‘That would be too easy.’
‘Well, then, at the bottom of the sea?’
‘No,’ Shiva responds again. ‘That would also be too easy.’
‘Well, where then?’
‘I will hide myself in the one place that few will dare to look… inside the human heart.’[8]

At times we doubt self and deny life. That’s reality at the bottom of the mountain. The journey is not a destination somewhere away from anxiety and doubt.  It’s a realization of beauty and strength inside the human heart in the midst of life where words, mere words are never enough.  Love grips the heart and from that centre shows us where words translate into actions.

Bill Lawton – 24 June 2010

Sermon at St Jude’s Randwick, NSW, on the occasion of the dedication of its church anniversary, 27 June, 2010.


[1] By 
Oriah Mountain Dreamer
 copyright © 1999 by Oriah Mountain Dreamer.

[2] Matthew quotations from The Message.

[3] These precise words were part of a lengthy conversation between Ian and Bill Lawton in November 2007 at C3 Exchange (formerly Christ Community Church) in Spring Lake, MI on the evolution of religious language and values.  They were part of an e-series based on Joseph Campbell’s notion of The Hero.

[4] I located the comment, attributed to John Donne, in a web site: Earthy Mysticism: Transfiguration on Retreat  My search of original documents suggests that Donne could not have been the author, though hints of this quote can be found in his ‘The Lamentations of Jeremy’.  A misquote notwithstanding, the comment seemed relevant to my topic.

[5] Noel Davis, Campfire of the Heart, Shekinah Creative Ministry: Sydney, 1994.

[6] This and the final paragraph of the sermon derive from a shared study on Matthew’s Gospel by Ian and Bill Lawton at C3Exchange, Spring Lake, MI: for general reference see

[7] The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 70.

[8] Quoted from Forrest Gilmore, ‘The Masks that we Wear’, page 3, © 2005.  I again doubt the provenance of this quote which I could not locate elsewhere.  The website from which this quote came is now unavailable (03/08/2014).


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Dreams awaiting fulfilment

Dreams awaiting fulfilment

I was researching for a writing project when a quotation riveted my attention.  It so engaged me that I have made it a recurring theme for today’s sermon: 


My thoughts wander to an evening when a storm was threatening, so I hurried to finish my purchases and speed home.  But the heavy rain kept me confined under a shop awning where I, and a homeless street man I knew well, sheltered.   He opened his umbrella – his treasured possession – and offered me its protection.  This was a moment of profound transformation.

We stood together, two ‘solitudes’ with our separate life histories and independent existences, for a moment sharing his generosity.  I was the parish priest, he was a homeless man – both of us had totally different identities and life experiences.  There was no room in this space for any sense of difference that mattered.  He offered me protection under his umbrella, and in that moment of standing shoulder to shoulder we were no more than two solitudes in need of each other.  The street man blessed me with protection.  In the same moment, he would also salute me and call me by name, as I would call his name.  This was a relationship that had no judgment in it about the other.

Neither of us saw the need to serve or meet the other through pity or sentimentality – our humanity alone bonded us.  Under the protection of his umbrella we two solitudes bordered and saluted each other.  And nothing more was necessary; it was as if life for both of us had its supreme moment in a simple act of acknowledgement.

‘True love consists in this; that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.’ The quotation drove me to read the original from which my research author had selected it.  This morning I offer his explanatory words also to you as the substance of my sermon:

We are only just now beginning to look upon the relation of one individual person to a second individual objectively and without prejudice, and our attempts to live such associations have no model before them … The humanity of woman, borne its full time in suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she will have stripped off the conventions of mere femininity …, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching today will be surprised and struck by it … There will be girls and women whose name will no longer signify merely an opposite of the masculine, but something in itself, something that makes one think, not of any complement and limit, but only of life and existence: the feminine human being.

This advance will (at first much against the will of the outstripped men) change the love-experience …, reshape it into a relation that is meant to be of one human being to another, no longer of man to woman.  And this more human love (that will fulfill itself, infinitely considerate and gentle, and kind and clear in binding and releasing) … consists in this; that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.[1]

At a first hearing you may have thought these words were written in a feminist publication of the 1960s or 70s.  You may be surprised to learn that they were written in 1904 by Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the great lyric poets of modern Germany.  Before the social upheavals of two world wars he signaled the radical sexual and relational changes that continue to mark our generation.  His own dark life haunted his writing.

It is easy to dismiss his ideas as a response to a confused childhood or to unfulfilled relationships.  But read more deeply and you sense the profound yearning of the human spirit to be free.  That spirit breaks through the dark side of his own emotions and he tells us a truth we ignore at our peril: ‘true love consists in this; that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other’.  Two solitudes, two separated individuals, with their own history and life experience can bring their difference and their individuality into a space where love can flourish.  These are dreams awaiting fulfilment.


The emotion expressed by Rilke was an emerging theme of the late 19th and early 20thcenturies.  One hundred and thirty years ago the French novelist Emile Zola challenged what he called the ‘shallow and disposable’ fashions of theatre and art.  He urged writers to explore the complexities of life with all its failings and confusion.   In that spirit Henrik Ibsen, and a new generation of playwrights, critiqued the basic conventions of their society. Here too are dreams awaiting fulfilment.

In 1879, in Copenhagen, Ibsen produced his play A Doll’s House.  Immediately hostile responses greeted this stage presentation of a disintegrating marriage.  The play evoked stresses about restrictive marriage and divorce laws.  It highlighted the plight of women in a repressive patriarchal society. The heroine Nora turned her back on household comfort, family responsibility and male indoctrination to find her own ‘solitude’.  Judged by modern norms the play is melodramatic and contrived, but to its first audiences it was a revelation of a world yet to be born.  German censors demanded that the ending be changed and that Nora return to her husband and family.

In 1889 Ibsen ‘s Doll’s House played to packed audiences in Sydney’s Criterion Theatre.  Crowds poured into the streets debating the play into the early hours of the morning.  The sensation made headlines in the daily press.  This was a play that seemed to be born out of time.  When in 1892 Sir Alfred Stephen presented his divorce law reform (Divorce Amendment and Extension Act) into the New South Wales Parliament, he faced opposition across the chamber and also from the most conservative forces in society, led by the various churches.  Nora, and women like her, could be beaten, abused, refused rights and remain without power in society and all to preserve the sanctity of a man-made dogma about human relationships.  The ‘solitudes’ were sacrificed to the religion of conformity.  These were dreams awaiting fulfilment but the urgency of Ibsen and his like remain powerful prophecies of what is still to come.

Why all this history?  Because their story is still unfinished and we are their inheritors. Though their names may be unknown to many in this audience, we still need to give thanks for great American prophets who have shaken our world before its time.  I could have spoken about famous men – infamous depending of your opinions – like Joseph Smith, prophet of the American New Jerusalem.  Literary critic Harold Bloom has described him as a primary founder of ‘the American Dream’.  I might have given over this sermon to Martin Luther King whose every word and action is carefully recorded and whose misdemeanors are hushed.   Instead I have chosen to speak about some astonishing women whom history has largely ignored.  Women prophets have made an enormous contribution to the radical transformation of America and the world.


Ella Baker, activist and civil rights organizer, makes a fascinating beginning for this study of prophetic women.  Married for twenty years, but silent through all that time about her marriage, she gave unselfish leadership to the Black Freedom Movement in the United States.  Her ideas impacted beyond those circles and her influence was felt throughout the women’s movements of the late 1960s and early ‘70s.  Her belief that racism underlay colonialism and imperialism, war, the oppression of women, the politics of crime and punishment, and the exploitation of labor gave her an international audience.

She drew Martin Luther King’s support behind the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.  King was the dominant figure in this history and Baker the woman King eventually clashed with over leadership style.  She criticized his unchecked ego, the patriarchal structures he set up and the way his decision making excluded the grass roots.  In Baker’s worldview, ‘strong people don’t need strong leaders.’

 Baker was the true revolutionary.

Her sole life interest was politics.   Her dream, for a more humane world where solitudes could border protect and salute each other dominated her agenda.  She spent her days working for a world that even now waits to be born. She lived with dreams awaiting fulfilment.

America has other prophets, as single minded but more eccentric, whose story needs to be heard. Carrie Nation, nearly 6 feet tall and 175 pounds, described herself as ‘a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like’.  Her bands of women prayed and sang hymns outside the Kansas saloons.  Then, at a signal from Carrie, they would brandish their concealed hatchets and shouting ‘Smash, smash, for Jesus’ sake smash’ destroy the saloon bars and terrify the owners.  Prize-fighter John L. Sullivan was reported to have run and hid when Nation burst into his New York City saloon.

Yet beyond this eccentric behavior Nation, with others in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, once the largest women’s organization in the United States, took up issues ranging from health and hygiene, prison reform, and world peace.  Nation was part of a movement working for the liberation of women – and in doing so for the liberation of men from the stereotypes society had placed on them.

I add to this list of prophets Helena Petrovna Blavatsky who founded in New York in 1875 the Theosophical Society and through her chief disciple Annie Besant, raised issues about contraception and family planning.  She had a dream for the transformation of family life.  Her work helped many women to begin the difficult journey of being responsible for their own bodies as ‘solitudes’.   We also are her inheritor making her principle of action our own.  Her legacy is for an ‘open-minded inquiry into world religions, philosophy, science, and the arts in order to understand the wisdom of the ages, respect the unity of all life, and help people explore spiritual self-transformation.’  These are still dreams awaiting fulfilment.

Each of these women was complex, contradictory, and never a model of probity or gentleness.  All of these women were unconventional and all left a legacy yet to be fulfilled in a search for the energy that makes two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.  They were prophets to their generation and a challenge to each of us – male and female – to support the cause of freedom from irrational dogma and oppression.

If the men in this audience will hear me, when these women spoke about the liberation of their own gender, they were speaking also about the liberation of men from every stereotype that would limit them.   They challenge us all to become ‘solitudes’, people living our own destinies without attempts to control others.  Their dreams awaiting fulfilment point also to the liberation of men who will dream with them.


And Jesus was the forerunner in this tradition for all of these women.  He also spoke of dreams awaiting fulfilment.  They understood him differently, and mostly from the edges of the formal churches, but they saw in him a radical opponent of conventional society.

Like them, he also was a prophet of his time, his words colored by its conventions and his language shaped by its images.  He shared their complexity of character and in the Gospel accounts we catch a glimpse of his limitations.

Today’s bible reading from Matthew 25 is the briefest segment from two long chapters, which are a series of parables ( or dreams) about the end-times.  Many preachers find here a field day for teaching about the Rapture and the perils of the Millennium.

But Jesus, the discomforting preacher from the 1st century, eludes these strange figments popularised by 19th century religion.  On the surface of things, Jesus’ images about hell-fire and damnation remind many of us of a pulpit world we hoped we had left behind.  But the urgency through chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words makes his meaning abundantly clear – those who fail to love their neighbour or to live justly face eternal consequences.

That preaching carried its own 1st century imagery.  Language about Hell was drawn from the daily burning of refuse in the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem.  The derived word Gehenna has passed into our language.  This dramatic image is itself a parable of the powerful regret that can eat at the human heart when sorrow, loss, tragedy or willfulness find no healing or forgiveness.

Hell is where ‘solitude’ has become isolation and where the human spirit translates this as exclusion, racism, power and contempt of others.  Jesus uses this most dramatic imagery to awaken his hearers to the need for ‘solitudes’ to strive all their lives to border, protect and salute every other human being.  This the dream of his teaching.

Jesus’ entire life story is uncomfortable.  He came from Nazareth; we know his brothers and sisters, so how can he be a prophet?  Jesus is the son of Mary – but to call a Jewish boy the son of his mother is to hint at some family disgrace.  This is a man not worth listening to; his limitations are too alarming.  Jesus is so like the women prophets I have named in this sermon.  All of them bring limitations that distract their audiences

But read more deeply: beyond the images of the times there is another story of greater passion.  Jesus is intent on showing the true quality of love – here also are dreams awaiting fulfilment.  The stories about Hell were as everyday as are our own accounts of the Axis of Evil and the moral conflicts that seem to shape our least decisions.

Right now in Australia, State governments are debating stem cell research.  At once one of our religious leaders, has announced that the Catholic Premier of New South Wales will be refused Communion if he supports the Bill.  In the face of life changing legislation, dogma is once more seen repressively – not reasoned debate about social and human evolution, even God-evolution, but a call for the past to control the present.  I hear the same thrust of debate on American Television.

Everywhere in the Gospels Jesus challenged this attitude.  And everywhere he urged on people the true love that engages their ‘solitude’. What is clear from his teaching is that the inner being, the spirit, is the place where true love dwells; from the heart, he says, come the qualities that make us human.    When people ask where God or God’s Kingdom might be found, he pointed to the inner life and then asked people to think from within to what was about them.

Here is how one of his followers summarized this teaching: ‘God is love’ and if we are in any doubt what that means he adds ‘if anyone sees their brother or sister in need and does not have compassion for them, they are liars and the truth is not in them.’  Jesus was consumed by the stupendous realization that love and God are not abstractions but are the intent of the heart, the engagement of the solitude for the other, whoever they may be.

Here is the key to today’s two readings. They suggest two profound ideas.  The first was signalled in Ian’s sermon last week that ‘God is where God does’.  The second is that love is seen in the doing of mercy and without sentimentality or pity.  This is a dream capable of fulfilment.


Love is first the profound awareness of what is inward for you and me as ‘solitudes’.  Look up the Internet and see how many charities and Christian financial houses call themselves Matthew 25.  I am sure most of them are worthy of your support, but pause before you do this, because one thing more is asked of you and that is to awaken to your own inner dream, to sense your own human connectedness, to touch the place where hope dwells.

Every parent knows this truth – children are not to be coerced but helped to enter their own inner place where maturity is born.  Marriages work on the same principle and that is how we respond best to our neighbors.  God bless you for standing alongside people, cooking meals when they are needy, scrubbing floors when illness strikes.  But the heart of loving is first to know yourself as ‘solitude’.

At some point each of us have to trade our pride and self-sufficiency and accept the protection of the offered umbrella and then border and salute the other human being.  At that moment, the hardest lesson of all is to learn to say each other’s name with affection.

This is the key to a progressive religion, which calls itself ‘being human, being love’.  Here, we name each other.  This is the simplest yet hardest of all tasks.   In this congregation and in our wider communities we learn to speak each other’s name with gentleness.   This will mean taking the hard journey that avoids unnecessary criticisms, harsh judgment of difference, blindness to the joy and grace in another’s being.  And it will bring us to some reconciliation with the complex faith paths we have traveled, owning what is best in those traditions and always looking for fresh and vitalizing faith discoveries.

We will discover that racism and sexism have no place among us as we learn to bless each other with protection.  What matters is our integrity and the dream of what it means to be truly human.  And that will be living love from the strong-house of the inner being, ever-learning fresh ways of bordering and protecting each other.  Are these dreams awaiting fulfilment or are they being realised in your reaching out from your solitude to protect, border and salute an-other?

Bill Lawton

Sermon at Christ Community Church, Spring Lake, Michigan, 10 June 2007.

Matthew 25:31-35 (New Revised Standard Version)

Todd Billings, Assistant Professor of Reformed Theology, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.
How can a Christian live out the commands of Mathew 25 – without the pity?
“I was just at church, and they were praying for the homeless,” Larry said, holding the day’s belongings in a bag beside him. As the subway screeched to a halt, I heard him quip, “I decided that I should pray for the housed.” Larry was sick of handouts, sick of condescension. To Larry, as a longtime guest at the homeless shelter at which I worked, Christian compassion seemed like little more than a masquerade, a power trip for those fortunate enough to be in the seat of the “giver” rather than the “receiver.” 

Larry’s complaint about Christian compassion resonates with Friedrich Nietzsche’s depiction in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Through the voice of Zarathustra, Nietzsche diagnoses Christian compassion as “pity”—a belittling, demeaning approach to the sufferer that shames rather than restores. Sufferers do not want pity, according to Nietzsche; they don’t even want solidarity, when it comes from people descending from on high to be with the sufferer below. Sufferers also want to be givers. To only receive and never to give is to be dehumanized, to be belittled.


[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, New York: Vintage Books, 1987, p.78.


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We wish to see Jesus: Consecration of John McIntyre as Bishop of Gippsland.

We wish to see Jesus: Sermon at the Consecration of John Charles McIntyre as Eleventh Bishop of Gippsland.

St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne

St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne

‘Greeks come’ with a request: ‘we wish to see Jesus’; the Bible comment is almost casual.  They engage the reader for the fraction of a moment and then slip out of the story altogether.  They are the alien, the outsider, the unthinkable.  Just once before in the Gospel of John their presence has been hinted at, but the possibility that Jesus might share the majesty of God with outsiders is found almost blasphemous (John 7:35).   They are close enough to long for connection, but distant enough to be disregarded and despised.


Some Greeks came to Philip, who was from Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves their life loses it, and whoever hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, they must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour them (John 12: 20-26).


‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’.  I can’t think of a more dynamic challenge for this moment in St Paul’s Cathedral than those words from John’s Gospel.  Looked at in the most common-sense way, here are people seeking an interview with Jesus.  They have clearly come a long way and they need answers to some hard questions.  No one is going to pin their life and future on one more community do-gooder or political revolutionary without asking what their words and actions amount to.

IMG_1215So, John McIntyre, there is an interview at hand.  In the days ahead we will need to know what you mean when you talk about Jesus and the new life he promised and what ‘loving’ means in action.  The story we have just heard as the Consecration Service Gospel follows on directly from some very hard questions indeed.

Chapter 12 of John’s Gospel is quite pointed about relationships in a Christian household – how should people treat each other and what priority does faith have in these relationships?  What is our attitude to evil and corrupt behaviour?  Do we just wink at sin and go on being relativists?  When poverty strikes and there is no work and no hope of work, where does justice lie?  John’s Gospel chapter 12 tears at the heart of our easy answers.  There is a shocking conclusion, Jesus, only Jesus, is at the centre of life’s content.

If you will allow Luke’s version of this story to overlap John’s, what do you make of people whose lifestyle challenges yours – when the outsider gate-crashes your security?  And when death intrudes, is it the end of everything or in some mysterious way a new beginning?  All of this is pressing question and if Jesus has the answers, then we need to hear you tell us about it in words we can understand.  Because frankly the answers so far seem utterly alien to the way we have learnt to see life.

Well, let’s spend time gathering how John’s Gospel offers us another way of ‘seeing’ and a different way of ‘discovering’.  ‘Greeks come’, John says simply.  They engage the reader for the fraction of a moment and then slip out of the story altogether.  They are the alien, the outsider, the unthinkable.  Just once before in this Gospel their presence has been hinted at, but the possibility that Jesus might share the majesty of God with outsiders is found almost blasphemous (John 7:35).   They are close enough to long for connection, but distant enough to be disregarded and despised.


In the twenty years John McIntyre and I have known each other I have engaged with a man whose heart lay with the alien and the outsider.  In all that time, he allowed his understanding of God and human nature to shape his contact with people.  And many in the establishment found this offensive.  His understanding of Jesus’ teaching brought race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality under the microscope.  These are the social and communal crises in which we live.  Each of them challenges the justice we say we live by.  He took the words and actions of Jesus, that are key to John’s Gospel chapter 12, as normative for his own life.

We all talk words about acceptance but John and Jan live them.  Each in their own way reach out to alienated people and help them find community.  They are passionate about the needs of dispossessed people.  They have dirtied their hands in the simple affairs of life – people in ‘the Block’ being dispossessed from their homes, Indigenous people gaining a property of their own for worship and socializing, women marginalised in the church by being refused ordination to the priesthood, gay people burdened with the guilt of others’ rejection.  Here, with the same basic questions raised by John’s Gospel chapter 12, John and Jan McIntyre lived out how people might treat each other and they showed faith’s priority in their own relationship.  John and Jan spoke about justice in the face of evil and corrupt behaviour.  And when poverty struck and there was no work and no hope of work, they committed themselves to the politics of change.

They lived out the complex questions about life and death – and all the time when the outsider gate-crashed their own security.  That other question brings fresh meaning here: the ‘interview’ with Jesus gains more potency.  We have ‘seen’ Jesus in their lives and actions.

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’.  In this new beginning for your life, we are all gathered to be partners in the discovery of Jesus’ words and actions shown through you.   For those who haven’t yet got to know anything of the McIntyre’s life, let me add briefly what I know personally of John Mac’s last twenty years.  We met at a General Synod Commission on Ministry and Training and instantly became friends.   Some of this was the larrikin in both of us; some was the odd jumble of different theological disciplines between Ridley College where John taught and Moore where I lectured.


However, every time we met, not this, but a passion for the marginalized was the heart of his concern.   When the parish of St Saviour’s Redfern was offered, John took the chance to translate his philosophical ethics into human value.  Translation was the key to this significant phase of his life.  As an academic, he had explored the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr and the human exercise of power.  Now he had the chance to see that theology in action.

Redfern was a parish no one wanted.  Since the 19th century it had struggled to be viable.  After a two-year vacancy, John and Jan and their three children, Paul, Jessica and Lisa, took up residence in the Rectory.  In the fifteen years that followed, they embraced the Koori communities and from the tiny church group commenced ministries in the adjacent high-rise developments and among people otherwise dispossessed from church and alienated from family.  John and Jan played a key role living as representatives of the love and the justice of God.

Here is how John spoke about this:

Everyday I come face to face with people who are isolated by poverty and exclusion. I am overwhelmed, often to the point of tears, by the depth of sorrow in which so many live their lives … Our church, which reflects the community it seeks to serve, is one tiny beacon of hope in Redfern.  We see our unity in diversity as testimony to the transforming power of God. Personally, most of my time is spent with people who do not attend church. My desire is to be a witness to Jesus as I engage with the community for the sake of others. That is how our church sees and understands mission. (Interview with Stuart Robinson 1/8/05 for

In 1997 John was named ‘Citizen of the Year’ by South Sydney Council in recognition of his ministry across the community.  Those of us who knew him well watched his tireless commitment to Indigenous land-rights issues, to the formation of Indigenous church communities across the Diocese and his support of Reconciliation between Indigenous and white Australians.

At the same time, he involved himself in the women’s ordination debate and complained about what he saw as the insensitive treatment of homosexual people by the church.  Through all of this, he practiced the theology he once taught.  And John knew how to challenge those ‘well known for [their] defiance of Scripture’ in one case financing legal action in the secular courts over the ordination of women.   What he added I heard often from him:

No amount of fancy-footwork self-serving hermeneutics on the part of diocesan theologians has ever justified that breach of Biblical imperative. Nor will it justify this present case. (Letter to the Editor, Southern Cross, 10 Feb. 2001)

You can expect him to continue this direct challenge to his sense of injustice and hypocrisy.

‘Seeing Jesus’ was for this family about embracing the Redfern community and becoming part of its organisations and activities.  John spoke to developers, politicians and local councillors about community change and regeneration.  He was always part of the process, longing for people’s transformation.  People loved him for his sheer doggedness and honesty. When he took up a cause, he followed through with absolute transparency and integrity.  That is what ‘seeing Jesus’ meant for him.

And Jan, partly to keep the finances going, but more, to add her own gift to people, engaged in ‘home care’.  She lived Jesus’ command to ‘love’ by undertaking the most menial of tasks to make life more tolerable for others – one day at a time.  She practised the presence of God in all these basic tasks.


Don’t hear me turn them into ‘saintly’ figures.  They just met God in the ordinary daily events, or as poet Les Murray has put it: ‘What [they] have received is the ordinary mail of the otherworld, wholly common, not postmarked divine’ (‘First Essay on Interest’, The People’s Otherworld, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1983:8).

I come fresh to those words about ‘seeing Jesus’ and know that there is more here than a rational ‘interview’.  You will learn to value John well beyond his capacity to listen to you and empathise with your problems.  You will discover that he is a man of insight.  In our twenty years of friendship he has heard me through many personal, theological and spiritual crises.  What I value most is the space he gives to reflect and the silence in which my own heart can speak to me.  And when he adds words, they are to ‘awaken’, to touch the soul or spirit.  John continues to be what he was trained to do, to be an ethical theologian who can open your heart to the power of loving.

Only people who live this can teach this.   Our twenty-year journey has sometimes been intense, more often filled with laughter and tales of the absurd.  We have taken each other seriously by learning to live where the heart uncovers pain.  Without formal words, we have tapped into the yearning of the soul.

When the question about an ‘interview’ reached Jesus, he replied: ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’   With the outsider pressing to belong to God’s family, Jesus knew that that the old world of exclusion, caste, ritual purity and taboo has passed.  The coming of the outsider was the moment of Jesus’ ‘glory’.

As the years have passed my own sense of this Jesus has changed radically.  I acknowledge the variety of insights we share; indeed the Greeks who came to see him long ago must have had many conflicting opinions on who he was.   Just read chapters 10, 11 and 12 for yourself and you will face the many opinions that circulated then about Jesus.  What did he mean when he said he was ‘the Son of God’?  In the face of the death of his friend Lazarus, why did he seem so impotent: ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind, have kept this man from dying?’  And even when Lazarus astonishingly appeared before his friends, some greeted this with skepticism and made it a cause to plot Jesus’ downfall.

No, he keeps eluding our definitions and that is the wonderful feature of the Gospel.   We can’t contain Jesus.  He bursts out of our boundaries of what is acceptable, even of what is godly.  He embraces people we wouldn’t want to keep company with – calls them his friends and tells us that of such is God’s Kingdom.  John and I know only too well the many street people who found themselves in the strong embrace of God and understood the passion of this enigmatic man Jesus.

When you ask Jesus to define himself, he enigmatically replies ‘Son of Man’.  There is a history to this title that must have challenged some of Jesus’ hearers to wonder how political and world-affirming he might be.  Others interpreted the words as some super-human conqueror.  But his meaning to the ordinary unchurched outsider seems abundantly clear.  He is man – he is all that I long to be.  No, he’s not a man as I live the term – divisive, divided, uncertain, locked in my own abyss of failure and incompleteness.  He is the man I want to become, the man I spend all my days seeking for.


And when I reach out to take hold of his sort of man, he challenges me to the depth of my being.  He calls me to live in a new way by showing me the pattern of his own life: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’   That disturbs my complacency and upsets all my plans.  He is going to awaken my imagination to new possibilities and lead me to fresh discoveries I never thought possible.

Just sometimes I took services for John and preached at St Saviour’s Redfern.  I knew the building well, having filled in year there as locum tenens back in 1959 when the Rector was absent, ill.  The remnants of its more colourful and Anglo-Catholic history were everywhere.

There was a profound sadness in the place and though a small congregation persisted, you knew that soon water and white ants would destroy the fabric.  Some Sundays the intense swarm of termites drove us outside to conclude the evening service under a street lamp.  Some remarkable people took over but in my opinion none more remarkable than John and his immediate predecessor, Archdeacon Huard.  They journeyed with people through the dying of the parish, held on to the possibility of new life and built again the congregation.  In the last fifteen years, you entered the vitality of a contemporary worship that honoured the Prayer Book and allowed people the joy of discovering and owning publicly the ‘glory’ or Spirit of God that embraced them.

When you talked to these people after church or at weekend conference you heard them touch in the simplest terms their own profound awareness of ‘seeing Jesus’ – remember the interpretation I suggested earlier, they were ‘transformed’, ‘awakened’, ‘re-born’ into a fresh sense of what it meant to be human.

Jesus’ primary meaning was about his own dying and rising.  He was the grain of wheat, cold and bare in the earth; he was the sparkle of new life with its abundant possibilities.  But his words were also intensely personal.


Today’s service from the Ordinal, as it speaks about the qualities of a bishop, illustrates my point.  I have used the 1662 Prayer Book but the words are paralleled in the modern versions.  Here are its classic phrases: John must ‘preach God’s Word’, he must ‘administer Godly discipline’, he is to ‘edify the Church’ and ‘adorn’ doctrine by ‘innocency of life’, he must ‘pray’, ‘teach’ what leads to ‘salvation’, be ‘an example of good works to others’ and be ‘gentle’ and ‘merciful’, ‘to poor and needy people, and to all strangers destitute of help’.  But all this is dependent on one basic quality: he is to engage what the old Ordinal still called the ‘Jews and Greeks’ (there they are again) – those inside the Christian community and those alienated, forsaken and despised – by himself living out a ‘dying to self’ and ‘a rising to new life’.  The old Prayer Book called the bishop to match ‘our Redemption by Jesus’ death’ by the way the bishop would live his own life.

Jesus leaves us in no doubt about his meaning: ‘Whoever loves their life loses it, and whoever hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, they must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour them.’  The promise repeated in John’s Gospel is Jesus’ own commitment to ‘life without measure’.  But this only comes, as John McIntyre knows all too well, when he has faced his own worst demons, owned his pride and yielded to the profound love of that Other Man, the Bishop of his soul, whom he holds in view as the goal and drive of his life.

To become like Jesus by seeing the world as he did, is to begin at the place of your own human poverty.  You are following the man who all his life carried the stench of the manger.  The Gospels persistently reflect on him as ‘having no place to lay his head’, as in the prophet Isaiah’s words ‘despised and rejected’, as always ‘outside’ with society’s outcasts.

Here is the work of a modern bishop.  He builds his ministry around this paradoxical figure, Jesus.  He portrays God in the man Jesus and his humiliation.  He spends his days as a pastor re-framing these opposites, the man Jesus and God, and helps people reconcile a new awareness of the human becoming one with the divine.   His work is to help people own their needs and disabilities – their dying – and at this place of their despair discover the centre of their wondering and imagining.  They are not trapped by their past – a new life is possible.  Jesus is the catalyst who helps them awaken to who they truly are; as they uncover their humanity they learn that their divinity is already within them.  That discovery or ‘seeing’ is our awakening.

For the moment, we are still bound by the wasteland of our unfulfilled desires and our commitment to appearances.  And unfulfilled desire is the mark of our tragedy.  We see this played out in many of our communities, where dependence on alcohol, drugs, food, pleasure, on poverty itself, have dwarfed people’s humanity.   They will only be released as they discover the transformation of their inner being, as they allow the spark of their divinity to kindle.

As a leader in this world of unfulfilled desire, I commend my good friend John and remind him of the Gospel charge: ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus!’

Bill Lawton

For the Sunday closest to the Feast of Cyril and Methodius, missionaries to the Slavs.

Sermon preached at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, on the occasion of the Consecration of John Charles McIntyre as Eleventh Bishop of Gippsland – 11 February 2006.


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The Word Became Flesh: Experiencing God’s Presence in the World

The Word Became Flesh: Experiencing God’s Presence in the World

…  the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

After Geoff Glassock had asked me to preach this morning, a wag commented that Advent was a surprising time to have in the pulpit a man who didn’t believe in a literal Second Coming of Jesus. Well, by the end of the morning, you can be the judge of how I believe we might experience God’s presence in the world.

Each of the bible texts chosen for today offered powerful introductions to the way that Presence is felt among us and around us. But, as soon as I read the Gospel text of John chapter 1, I knew that I was in personal territory:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life,and that life was the light of all humankind. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

word became flesh

St John’s Darlinghurst North Transept Window

This is the world of my self-discovery. Today’s sermon is a summation of amazing books that have been occupying my spare moments – Thich Nhat Hahn, No Death, No Fear and Parker PalmerA Hidden Wholeness, the Journey Towards an Undivided Life. The one is from a Buddhist tradition, the other from the Quaker movement. If you have travelled my path, then you will hear echoes of both writers.  Because my mind and spirit are attuned to their message, this sermon is selective.

John Baptist, the secondary character of our Gospel text, will have to wait another turn. I am transfixed by the Gospel’s introduction and by some explanations the writer offers inserted further into his argument.


Not a moment’s silence but every day packed with words: emails telling events along with a barrage of jokes to ‘lighten the day’, letters demanding attention – conferences, charity events, criticism, praise, hostility, complaint and then a wonderful inner peace with the briefest note from a friend: ‘I enjoy our relationship immensely and can draw something from your messages inside any time I read them’. Suddenly the ‘word’ brings ‘life’.

That the Gospel would begin with a focus on Word fascinates me. Out of the haze of last week, where every day I battled with words, mine and others, I know that I need to say and hear more life-giving words. The church pulpit is an uncomfortable place to say this. I recall standing in the pulpit of St Stephen’s church in Willoughby where the lectern that holds the preacher’s notes has engraved on it this finger-pointing challenge: ‘Woe is me if I preach not the gospel’.


1. Words that embrace life

Even without that charge, I am suspended here between the formation that demands I be priest and preacher and the need for such silence that you and I can look each other in the eye and know, deeply, inwardly, the embrace of ‘life’. Is there a word that in bonding us will open a window on the only pressing question of our lives: ‘What does it mean to be human? what does it mean to be me?’

That is my everyday question. Just now at work we are talking about leadership training for managers. The emphasis is on ‘values’ and ‘our christian heritage’. The work words are about ‘dignity’, ‘empowerment’, ‘respect’, ‘advocacy’ and so on. I am sure you can parallel them from your own work world.

At the same time, the nature of a job controlled by government contract requires constant staff and service manager adjustment – with inevitable redundancies. At some point in most weeks my conversation is about job loss, work dissatisfaction and the personal and family consequences of unemployment. And there is anger and tears, rage and despair – the staff member says bitterly: ‘where do work ‘values’ and ‘christian formation’ sit here, especially when the work words seem to have been violated?’

I suspect that you and I are now on common ground. At this moment the pulpit isn’t a barrier. We are talking the same language. If we can’t re-invent ourselves we risk redundancy. We crave for just enough space for ‘life’ to be illuminated, or as the Gospel puts it for ‘life to become our light’.

2. Words that engage Values

Many of us are in the same situation. Whether it is our job, or our home life, it is our personal values that count. You may be in the thick of work demands or struggling with life-style change after redundancy.  You may be fulfilled with your marriage or feel crushed by limitations on your skills and ambitions.  You may find retirement days rewarding or face supported living with desperation.  In each, personal values make the difference. Some of these we inherited from family or church but most have evolved with us, as we have had to adjust to change and circumstance.

You and I have been together in this church a long time.  The words that pass between us, that most likely express at least some of our personal values, are ‘acceptance’, ‘tolerance’, ‘honour’, ‘respect’. We know from long conversation with each other that what brings us to church has more to do with each other and the community around us than it has with common beliefs. We come with basic questions about personal meaning. Church offers space for silence, gathering thought and strength, sitting still and allowing the inner spirit to speak. Preacher keep your voice down, I am trying to listen to my ‘soul’.

I personally love church most when children are present. Their chatter and questions keep the place buzzing with life. But they do even more for me, they teach me simplicity and, in doing so, open the path to transcendence. The ‘life’ of their presence brings ‘light’ into my inner being.

3. Words that bond us to sense and sight and touch

So listen again to the Gospel reading, but in my words for a moment:

From whatever point we start in this evolving cosmos, there is a commitment, that is itself the essence of God. It is an all-embracing affirmation, a ‘yes’ to every human being and to every part of the universe. It is the promise that what we call God or Spirit is to be found in everyone and in everything: no one and no thing is left out. That ‘yes’ from the heart of the universe awakens life and shines the brightest light on every darkened recess of our lives. The light is not condemnation, but illumination and awakening.

That is my commentary on the opening words of today’s Gospel reading. Listen to it again:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it … The true light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

The word I came to church to hear was ‘yes’, but that also is my problem. I utter a babble of prayers asking that everything will be all right with MY world, MY desires, MY needs. I want to be saved from tsunamis, droughts and terrorism and from the darkness of my own soul. I struggle with the sense of the prophet Isaiah’s message that God ‘sits above the circle of the earth and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers’ (Isaiah 40:22). Is that all I am, just a speck of cosmic dust?

Maybe I need to hear an equally resounding ‘no, look outside yourself’. Yours is a world of sense and sight and touch. In this journey of the spirit I need to take you to another saying in John’s Gospel. Only then can I begin to set myself, my darkness and confusion into a place where I can discover the depth of this ‘yes’ and begin to live life with courage and confidence.


I still need my basic question answered. ‘Who really am I?’ Back in the 60s and 70s many of us went to T-groups and read books like I’m Ok, You’re Ok. But that is just the problem; I am not OK. Like every one of you I am stressed by the demands that life and work place on me. I would like to pretend that neighbourhood or church are my primary communities but they aren’t: an occasional hello in the lift and a cup of coffee after sitting in a solitary pew on a Sunday morning don’t make for community.

Like it or not, work is the most profound community I know – and yet it mostly offers a pathetic answer to my life’s question. All it mostly affirms in me is what I do, rarely who I am. But when it goes that extra step, I sense belonging and commitment. And my questions, my need for a ‘yes’, start being answered in relationship.

1. So, Celebrate Life

I think the reason I am dreading leaving work is the end of those brilliant spaces in the day where I find acceptance – where I matter as well as what I do. Our workplace has just discussed adding the Value of ‘Celebration’ to its official set. We have been practicing it for quite a while. And I digress to give affirmation in this congregation that the inspiration for our decision is our churchwarden Steve Lawrence, CEO of our competitor WorkVentures, where ‘celebration’ is one of their key values.

So, remind me, as I must you, of those quiet spaces where affirmation means most and can be the most constant – from friends, from family and yes, here, if our talk about community is to have meaning. When the writer John moves on with his text to say: ‘The Word became flesh’, he is engaging the heart of relationship as the centre of my need. He is telling me that my life’s question only has meaning as I embrace other people and other things. Do you remember John’s earlier insight? Every-body and every-thing breathes with the life of God. If we believe that, it will make us passionate about people and our ecology. The God in us will want to embrace the God who is everywhere and in all things.

So that is where my question about my humanity focuses and where the reply ‘yes’ gains depth. We listen to each other’s stories, we hear each other’s pain, and we are excited about each other’s discoveries. We live out what St Paul said in today’s Epistle reading: ‘Always seek to do good to one another and to all’ (1 Thessalonians 5:15).

2. Make Depression a Stage of the Journey

We meet fools every day; they write letters of complaint based on incomplete knowledge, someone rages at a staff or family member and lives out their swollen sense of self. We meet them at work and we meet them in the supermarket. Worse still, we live with our own folly – wrong decisions, words spoken in haste than cannot be retrieved, arrogance sometimes, and those times of depression where we are paralyzed to move forward.

As a workplace manager I am puzzled by these outbursts of depression, others and mine. I read something the other day that may be commonplace to you but it came to me as a flash of insight. It helped me understand the meaning of ‘yes’ in life’s decision-making. Randolph Nesse, who directs the Evolution and Human Adaptation Program at the University of Michigan, has written a paper suggesting that depression ‘may have developed… as [an evolutionary] response to situations in which a desired goal is unattainable’. (Archives of General Psychiatry, 2000, 57, 14-20).

When I start putting this into simple words, I see that my inability to go forward may be my body telling me that I am not yet ready to face the danger. It is taking my most primitive fear as I face the jungle and urging me to travel by another path. Long-term depressives need counsellors, psychiatrists, mentors. They need therapy that comes from drugs and from lifestyle change – but here is a clue that I at least need to take to heart ‘Listen to the spirit within, hear the soul speak, be in touch with your body, honour ‘the word become flesh’.

3. See the Moment full of Wonder and Mystery

This has been a sermon based on a bible passage that is all about Jesus, but interestingly John hasn’t mentioned him by name and won’t do so for many more paragraphs of text. I also haven’t mentioned Jesus till now, deliberately. Both the sermon and the Gospel reading are about the sense of wonder that we can bring to our day’s experience: scripture reminds us that light and life are the mysterious energy of the universe (1 John 1).

My engagement with God is about my illumination, which is not some momentary thing but a steady unveiling of each moment. ‘Yes’ tells us that in the wonder of the moment we are awakened and every day that awakening becomes more profound. In passing, I might say to my Protestant Reformed hearers, that is precisely what St Paul meant when he said we are ‘justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1-5).

You are full of possibility, this moment is full of wonder and mystery – and sometimes you are fearful to tread there. Listen to your inner spirit speak, trust your intuition, do not be driven purely by others’ agendas, but seek the quiet consolation of the heart.

I have been a priest for close on 50 years and a good deal of that time I have served other people’s needs and requirements. I don’t pretend to have done it all with vigour or always willingly.  But I have believed – often mistakenly – that service was about rescuing. As a listener, mentor and confessor I have had an ear to the correction and the direction of others. My very ordination claimed to give the power to ‘bind and to loose’ the sins of others.

4. And Live Unafraid

It was good to come to St John’s where a new discovery began. You are forced to see life in a different way and to see yourself as you never have before. Some circumstances recently – Roberta Withnall’s birthday party actually — reminded me of what it was like to live in Darlinghurst during the mid to late ‘90s at the height of the AIDS pandemic. I knew almost everyone at the party.  I had buried lovers and friends.  In a hundred funerals I had tried to speak about courage in the face of death, and about separation and longing. And the gentle touch of rain on my face, the sense of them as now part of the fabric of the universe, brought the immediacy of their lives.

We are part of each other and the wonder is that the whole is now greater than all its parts. What was fragmented and dying is bound together in friendship and understanding. Those years with you and them changed my life and re-shaped my christianity. I came to realize the folly of trying to be another’s saviour. All I ever needed to do was to ‘let the heart speak’, to listen to the quiet whisper of another’s grief or their shout of joy and let my spirit bond with theirs.

St John’s was a great training school, because our values of ‘acceptance’, ‘tolerance’, ‘honour’, ‘respect’ meant that listening to each other was the heart of our community. And listening to your inner self, before your other agendas, is the only drive that really matters. That was Jesus’ message to people who let their doctrines and their status take precedence over the life and light that is in them.

This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, 13th Century Sufi poet and mystic

Bill Lawton

Sermon preached 11 December 2005 at St John’s Darlinghurst, NSW on the text John 1:1-4 and 9 and 14.



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